Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Elvira Mistress Of The Dark



Rack 'N’ Roll

Elvira Mistress Of The Dark
USA 1998 Directed by James Signorelli
New World Pictures/Arrow Blu Ray Zone B


Well this is interesting. I was given this newly restored Arrow Blu Ray of Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark for Christmas and when I looked it up on the IMDB to see when I first saw it here in the UK (late 1988 or whether the UK release wasn’t until the following year) it’s not listed as being released in UK cinemas at all. Well... I can tell you now that this information is false. I saw this movie at what was my local cinema at the time although, I suspect, it probably wasn’t until sometime into 1989 as I seem to remember drooling over the adverts for this in American comics for quite a while before I got the opportunity to see this one for myself. So... surprise, surprise... sometimes the IMDB gets it wrong.

Now I actually met Elvira, aka Cassandra Peterson, maybe around twenty years ago. It was at the London Film And Comic Con they have every summer but that was in the days before it was the heavily attended, joy-killing event it is in its present incarnation. In those days you bought entry tickets on the door and, if you were there half an hour early, you’d more than likely be the first in the queue. And as for seeing the stars themselves... well it must have been slow business for these guests, I guess. There was none of this pre-buying a slot to see the celebrity... you’d just get on the end of the line of... maybe three people... and wait your turn. Nowadays, if Elvira were to return to this country, she’d have her whole day booked out, I’m sure but, those were simpler times. She wasn’t wearing her Elvira make up and I remember her as being a thoughtful and pleasant woman. I asked her if she’d make out the photo she sold to sign to me with the phrase “Revenge is better than Christmas!” and she asked me why. I reminded her that it was a line from her movie (at the time she’d only made one feature film as Elvira... but been in others as a different character and occasionally guested as Elvira in various movies and TV shows like CHIPS and The Fall Guy). I reminded her where in the movie the line was from and her response was something like... “Oh yeah, I remember now.” before dutifully signing the photo and leaving me as star struck as I’m sure I would be today if I ever met her again.

So, a pointless story perhaps but I tell it here to let you know that, despite Elvira not really being a big thing in the UK in terms of actual TV coverage like she was in the US back then... where she was pretty much a cultural phenomenon and still is as far as I’m concerned (just check out her Twitter feed)... I was certainly someone who knew who she was and I was very much aware that there was some kind of hardcore group of die hard fans for her here in the UK too. I used to buy her vinyl records of Halloween horror song collections and I especially liked the odd tracks where she sang on them herself). And I did know some other people who saw this movie in cinemas back in the day and... yeah... it was a very well liked film.

Anyway, getting back to my rewatch of the movie... this thing is still great. It’s not the hard edged horror version of Elvira that you might have been expecting from the figure who is probably one of the most recognised icons of modern American popular culture. This is due to certain studio concessions which, if you watch the fine and quite long, expanded documentary included by Arrow with this release, you’ll find out more about. That being said though, at the risk of making this sound like an American version of a Carry On film (which it kinda is, actually), the film is filled with a lot of sexual jokes and, while not exactly hard edged horror, it does have witches, a haunted house (of sorts), a magical dog and a grotesque and very unfriendly pot monster. And although it’s not a very gory film due to the ratings, there is a scene where the main supernatural villain, played wonderfully by William Morgan Sheppard (who sadly died a few weeks after my friend gave me this Blu Ray), has his forehead caved in with one of Elvira’s thrown high heels before having his hand chopped off. Of course, the hand starts crawling around after Elvira too but... that’s pretty standard stuff.

And, sexy jokes or not, the level of humour in this movie is totally the kind I love. As in they are real groaners.

For example, when Elvira learns that her recently deceased Great Aunt has left her something in her will, she comes out with the clichéd, throwaway but oh so brilliant line... “I didn’t know I had a good aunt, much less a great one.” And this film is just filled with stuff like this coming at you at a rate almost but, not quite, as fast as a Marx Brothers sketch. So when a policeman asks her, “Do you know you were doing 50 in a 25 mile per hour zone?”, her reply of “No but, if you hum it I can fake it.” is all I need to keep me smiling. Or, after hearing an insult from one of the town’s folk on her arrival in their little part of the US, the much quoted line... “Listen sister, if I want your opinion I’ll beat it out of you.” 

And, of course, the expected amount of jokes about her shapely figure are very much all over the film and, frankly, I really don’t mind this stuff in this movie because Cassandra Peterson writes or approves a lot of that material herself, so she’s really not being exploited. So, naturally, I love the line where, after accidentally dropping a cinema sign letter on her head, the romantic lead played by Daniel Greene asks her... “How’s your head?” To which Elvira replies in her quick fire fashion, “Well I haven’t had any complaints yet.”... which has got to be one of my favourite one liners in any movie and, again, if you watch the accompanying documentary, you’ll see there was a lot of talk about whether they should be letting that line into the film or not due to the potential teenage audience.

So what we have here is a fun romp of a movie with a sexually aware undercurrent and the kind of ‘horror’ atmosphere which brings to mind more the old 1960s Roger Corman does Edgar Allan Poe style pictures and, frankly, this works for me. Indeed, I believe they were trying to get Vincent Price for the role of the main villain at one point but, I don’t think they could afford him at the time.

However, the main attraction here is Elvira, aka Cassandra Peterson herself. This horror hostess character she created for television, fending off a bit of an unfair copyright law suit by Maila Nurmi aka Vampira (read my review of a book about her here), is someone who will, I’m sure, be remembered long after she has departed this mortal plain and it’s an absolute pleasure to see her starring in a vehicle made especially for her. She doesn’t break the fourth wall as much as you might think she would (although she does do it a few times) and, asides from the action, cutting dialogue and beautiful performances, the film still has a great deal going for it.

For example, there are some nice fantasy sequences and, after the opening of the movie, a cool moment where the non-diegetic rock song soundtrack accompanying Elvira on her road trip turns back into source music as she joins in with the music which has been playing throughout the montage. So yeah, the director and editors really knew what they were doing and I’m stumped as to why this one did so badly at the box office (although it did extremely well on the highly priced, lucrative rental video circuit when it was released on VHS tape a little later). I would have liked to see her do a few more movies in this series but it was not to be. She did make another Elvira movie, of course.... Elvira’s Haunted Hills... but this was over a decade after this one and it seemed to have an even more lukewarm reception as far as I remember (although, once again, I managed to see it at the cinema and... yeah... I liked this one too).

And there’s not much else for me to say about this one. If you haven’t seen Elvira - Mistress of the Dark but you know who she is and you like the jokes and sexual innuendo coming in thick and fast then this is definitely a nice little film which probably wouldn’t get made in quite the same, almost innocent in some ways, way these days. The new Arrow Blu Ray restoration looks fantastic and the documentary and the odd nice extra rounds off a great package. This one’s definitely worth a watch if you’re a fan of horror tinged comedy and this particular presentation of it by Arrow is absolutely the best version to get. An invaluable addition to anyone’s library of films.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Happy Death Day 2U



Bury My Heart
At Wounded Tree


Happy Death Day 2U
2019 USA Directed by Christopher Landon
UK cinema release print.


Well this was an unexpected surprise.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the first Happy Death Day movie (which I reviewed here), especially since I only really went to hear Bear McCreary’s score and found myself caught up in what I personally think is a bit of a modern phenomenon of a teenage slasher movie... the premise of which was that it was another version of Groundhog Day but with the central character, Tree Gelbman, having to relive the same day over and over until she can figure out who it is who’s killing her at the end of the day so she can kill them and reset her life back to normal. It was such a nice idea with a great cast and some neat directorial and writing flourishes that I really didn’t see how they could go anywhere on a sequel which wasn’t just a rehash of the first movie and, yeah... I wasn’t expecting too much from this follow up, truth be told.

Which why it’s such a pleasure to be taken by surprise here because, yep, despite the central concept and the slightly clichéd but nicely handled expansion of that idea of a narrative being based on a repeat loop structure... Happy Death Day 2U is one of those rare film sequels which, while maybe not being quite as good as the first film, certainly lives up to any expectations of what a second part should look and feel like. So yeah, this movie in no way lets the first movie down and is a thoroughly entertaining ride.

Once again the insanely talented and charismatic Jessica Rothe plays Tree and back for the ride are pretty much all the main actors from the first film (and I do mean all) such as Israel Broussard, Phi Vu and Ruby Modine... but the fun doesn’t stop there because the writer/director manages to bring in a new bunch of characters and throws them into the mix too, played by people like Suraj Sharma and Sarah Yarkin. Frankly, it’s a testament to Landon that none of these characters feel like unnecessary add ons and they have a proper place in the continuing story of Tree and her ‘time looping’ dilemma.

And, like I said, the concept is expanded just a little so that we’re following some of the same stuff, in a way but... with different elements thrown into the mix.

So, for example, the film starts off focusing on Phi Vu’s character and as you twig right away, he is obviously going to start off in a loop because, right from the outset, you can see the director putting those little memorable incidents into his walk to his room mate’s bedroom on campus so the audience can pick up on these anchor points for the next time around... which is obviously why they’re there. However, rather than just run with that, Landon very quickly moves you into the next phase of the movie where some other freaky stuff starts happening and... yeah, the beauty of this movie is that, while it still very much uses a repeat structure to tell its story, it doesn’t do it in as static a way as the first and every time you think you’ve got the hang of how the movie is going to go for the rest of the running time, he manages to pull in another slightly different element and this keeps things fresh throughout the whole of picture, I’m glad to say. He even, at one point, manages to bring an audio element in from the first film,  just for a second or two, which acts as a kind of sound flashback to remind the audience of what the next part of a specific cycle should be, without having to add in a visual element to go with it... which impressed me greatly, I must say.

So I don’t want to give away too much here but, yes, you will find out exactly how (if not yet why) the incident in the first film took place and, although in some ways it would have been nice not to have to peek behind that curtain, the catalyst for all this stuff is a story element which has a lot of use to trigger different outcomes throughout the film so... I guess what I’m saying is, if they had to do a sequel, well this one is definitely a good way of solving certain problems. Also, it’s nice to see actors playing very specific character stereotypes in the first movie being given a chance to play their same characters in a different way at certain points. So there’s a lot on offer if you liked the first one and are happy that this isn’t just a repeat. And that includes the opening Univeral logo too... which was in a repeat loop at the opneing of the first movie but for this one... yeah, I'm not giving that away here either.

The film is pure fun from start to end and, surprisingly perhaps, manages to also be quite moving in certain moments. There were tears in my eyes during a specific scene and that’s just not the kind of emotional level that you would normally expect from something that, on the surface, masquerades as just another teenage Hollywood slasher movie. Like the first one, this movie has a lot of heart with the kind of strong, moral centre you’d not necessarily expect to be witness to in this kind of cinematic territory. And once again we have Bear McCreary picking up on the themes and ideas he used on the score to the first movie and expanding on them, enhancing the emotions just as you would hope. He does another great job here and I just wish this sequel score was put out on a proper CD instead of a low quality electronic download (at time of writing this article... I’ve still got my fingers crossed for some kind of physical release in the near future).

So, yeah, I managed to get through this review completely spoiler free, it looks like but, if you are reading this and are thinking of seeing the movie, please make sure you stay through the first part of the end credits. There’s a mid-post credits scene here and it’s fairly lengthy, explains the not so common sensical ending a little better (although I’m still a little baffled by the mechanics of the resolution scene... need to see it again). This sequence also sets up a much bigger picture for the third movie which, given the identity of a character unmasked early on in the film and which at first I thought might be a loose end the writer had forgotten about, might mean that the third film in the series (which I’m very much hoping is inevitable now) will have a much bigger scope to the first two. We shall see.

In the meantime, if you’ve not seen the first film then don’t see this one yet (and in fact don’t even watch the trailer) as it reveals the end of the first movie in a handy recap sequence. So go watch that once first because... well... it’s kind of brilliant. If, however, you’re already an admirer of the first film then Happy Death Day 2U definitely doesn’t fall too short of what your best idea of a version of a continuation of the story could be, I suspect and, frankly, it’s a fun ride all the way through. So go see it.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing The Bloody Doors Off



Deeley Mouthed Reporter

Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing The Bloody Doors Off -
My Life In Cult Movies

by Michael Deeley with Matthew Field
The History Press
ISBN: 978-0750985925


This is another great book which was a Christmas present and, I have to say that, of the many non-fiction books about the film industry I’ve read in the last 10 years or so, this one has got the least amount of factual errors in it that I’ve seen. I couldn’t find a one in here which, frankly, make’s a change for the modern market of people writing about the movies. Admittedly, the book is a little bit of a blur of projects in places and doesn’t really take the time and stop for all the little details you might like (what book on a similar subject does?) but two big thumbs up to Mr. Deeley for being a straight talking guy with his words here.

Now, I don’t know too much about Michael Deeley (still don’t, in a way, his personal life barely comes up in this account) and neither do I know too much about the art of producing movies (although I learned some good stuff from this book). However, since he’s responsible for being the main producer of my favourite film ever (Blade Runner) I thought it was about time I found out what I could about the craft of what is, basically, putting together deals and creating the environment for a specific motion picture project to flourish while enabling the director to be able to do what’s required in any way you can. And it seems Deeley is the person to listen to here because he’s produced some of the best of them... although it’s interesting to note that many of them were less than big successes when they first opened.

Perhaps this is why Mr. Deeley has chosen to use the horrible term ‘cult movies’ in his title, although it’s quite honestly clear in a certain passage in his text that he really knows the uselessness, changeability and ultimate redundancy of the term when applied to cinema... I suspect he just threw it into the title due to the fact that it’s mere utterance can produce an almost orgasmic reaction from the more naive of film fans and thus increase sales. That being said, many of the films he has on his books such as The Italian Job, Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, The Man Who Fell To Earth and, of course, Blade Runner, do have a very loyal following of admirers, although nowadays in much higher numbers than could ever justify anyone calling them cult films, it has to be said.

Deeley seems, from the way he writes, to be a fairly pleasant man with a lot of stories to tell which, I suspect, didn’t all make it into the book for various reasons. He speaks well of most people he’s worked with but always says things straight... so you won’t read much of a good word for his experiences wrangling Sam Pekinpah on his production of Convoy, for instance. And as for Michael Cimino and his time producing the spiralling production of what eventually became The Deer Hunter... well lets just say that he goes to great length, in the most pleasant manner possible, to point out what a terrible human being that director is... repeatedly and at length, whether he’s meant to be talking about him or not. So that says something about the kind of man he is, I think. I don’t know this but I got the feeling that he was being legally pulled back on saying much of what he wanted to say about certain people but still managed to find a way of getting it out there anyway... which is to his credit, I think. He also has a word or two to say about Julia Ormond as a presence on set but... yeah... you need to read this book yourself if you want to find this stuff out.

As can be expected, the book is full of stories from his times on films with the likes of Michael Caine and Ridley Scott and... also people who were partnered up with him to produce movies, notably Stanley Baker. He tells of the way their producing relationship finished and the tragedy of how Baker actually died, somewhat prematurely. As well as, throughout the book, little stories about other less than fortunate people in the business... such as the stuntman who damaged his leg on a shoot and, when taken to hospital, had the misfortune of having the wrong leg accidentally amputated.

The book has a good lead in and starts off with Mr. Deeley describing both the sheer boredom and tension inherent in having to go to an Oscar ceremony because you have been nominated for something. From there on the book takes a mostly chronological path from his early, post army days to his first jobs within the film industry and beyond. And on the way he drops various names and anecdotes of his adventures in the film trade, from refusing to give in to Warren Beatty’s requests to remove Julie Christie’s sex scene from Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now to defending his cuts to The Wicker Man with the, frankly very reasonable explanation, that if he hadn’t cut it like that to the demands of the people who were distributing it, then the film would never had found its way on to screens at all. In fact, nobody would distribute it in the US at all until Roger Corman allowed it to screen as a double bill with Don’t Look Now (when similar cuts were required to The Wicker Man to secure the deal).

Perhaps my favourite anecdote is of a disasterous private screening in the 1960s or early 1970s of a new film by Joseph Losey. I’m not going to tell you what happened here because that would spoil it but... Michael Caine certainly saved the day on that one. And, of course, I was ravenous for any more information I could find on Blade Runner and, although I knew much of this stuff before when it comes to this movie, it’s interesting to read of how it developed and just which concepts were there and, well, which were not there during the production of the film. It’s clear Deeley also knows how important this film is (and I think he calls it his favourite project at one point) because he takes a few chapters to talk about it which is, roughly, two and a half chapters more than he takes to talk about any of the other productions, it seemed to me.

I also like that he taylored his writing to that movie by the end of the novel too. In his last section, which I believe must be a new addition to this hardback edition because he’s talking about things from 2016, including his thoughts on Ridley Scott's Alien sequel and the, then, upcoming Blade Runner sequel, he uses a few adapted key phrases including the lovely paraphrase... “I don’t know how many years celluloid has left? Who does?” Actually, come to think of it, if you don’t know the original cut of Blade Runner which was released back in cinemas in 1982, before the advent of the various, so called director’s cuts of the movie, then the average modern reader might not pick up on some of those little writing flourishes either. Which is a shame because he’s shown a lot of love for the project here.

And that’s me done on the great Micheal Deeley’s Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing The Bloody Doors Off... one of the most British of movie books I’ve read but also one of the most enlightening. Definitely check this one out if you are interested in any of the directors or movies mentioned here... Michael has a story about most of them.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

The Lego Movie 2 - The Second Part



One Brick Pony

The Lego Movie 2 -
The Second Part

2019 Denmark/Norway/Australia/USA
Directed by Mike Mitchell
UK cinema release print.


Well... here Lego again.

The Lego Movie 2 - The Second Part is a sequel to both The Lego Movie (reviewed here) and The Lego Batman Movie (reviewed here) and I have to admit my expectations were pretty high because I thought both those movies were really good. Alas, this new movie comes off as just another brick in the box office wall and gives us a somewhat dull and lifeless sequel, it has to be said.

Now, I realise I’m not really the target audience but the first film was able to deliver a mostly solid storyline with a lot of stuff going on and a humorous script that worked at both a child and adult level. The Lego Movie 2 - The Second Part doesn’t quite perform the same kind of entertainment, I thought. While there are certainly the odd throwaway sexual innuendos tossed into the script, this feels much more like a kids movie than a family film and, I have to say, I did find myself clock watching on this one, to a certain extent.

Now the film does a lot of good stuff and, don’t get me wrong, there’s still some nice surprises in here. It helps that you have a group of characters who are genuinely likeable, reprised from the original installment. And, sure, it’s got a certain amount of wit and charm along with some inventive ideas but... I dunno, it just doesn’t seem as prolifically inventive as the first part and although there was undoubtedly a lot going on in each frame... it really didn’t feel like it was really worth studying too closely by going back for a second watch. Also, it’s interesting that no characters from Star Wars or Marvel Comics made it into the movie this time around. I think the Lego Marvel characters were absent from the first film too due to some rights issues with Disney but at least the Marvel thing is discussed on screen here.

There are a couple of things here though which were real problems for the way I viewed the movie and one of them has to be the amount of songs in here. It’s not quite a musical but it is close and there are some cute but ‘not so clever as they think they are’ songs in this one featuring as breaks in a narrative which really doesn’t need them. I grew up in the 1970s watching various comedy sketch shows of the period which insisted adding in atrocious comedy songs each week and what that taught me was that, no matter how witty the people writing the lyrics on those things thought they were, they just weren’t funny and dragged to the point that you really didn’t want to watch any more of the show.... and I got that feeling here too. The songs just weren’t that good... some of the lyrics were okay but, yeah, the lyrics didn’t get 'stuck in my head', even as they’d promised they would and I was basically just wishing for them to end for the most part.

The other problem I had with this film was with something which was set up in the first movie but which, thankfully, The Lego Batman Movie safely ignored... having characters cross over into the real world. Like a Toy Story movie, a few of the characters manage to ‘get out’ of their own reality and there were a number of scenes where the narrative kept jumping back to the real world with Will Ferrell and Maya Rudolph. The original sequence in the first movie was a real pace killer and, similar moments in this film provide exactly the same problems. I could really have done without this stuff.

Mark Mothersbaugh returns as the score composer on this and he does a nice job once again (asides from the songs, which would have been better absent). I might grab the score album at some point but I can live without it for now.

A big cheer goes to the scriptwriters for starting straight up from the ‘Duplo’ ending of the first movie  but, continuing on with a plot that seems half stolen from Zathura (which I’ve not seen but even I could see the similarities) and a general, vague feeling that nobody really had anything clever to add in to the somewhat ‘by the numbers’ script kind of takes the wind out of the sails of the opening set up, in all honesty.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about this one. I don’t think this will be going on anybody’s top ten lists and I just felt the film was a bit lifeless in comparison to the previous two. The Lego Movie 2 - The Second Part is in cinemas now and if you’ve got kids who like Lego then you can’t really go wrong with taking them to see this one... just don’t expect too much out of it when you’ve got your ‘adult head’ on. Everything’s not awesome in this one.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Alita - Battle Angel



Alita Shade Of Pale

Alita - Battle Angel
2018 Canada/Argentina/USA
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
UK cinema release print.


So the latest film by director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron is a live action adaptation of a manga (and, later, an anime) called Gunnm (and also known as Battle Angel Alita). Now I’ll do my usual disclaimer here and state up front that I have neither read any of the volumes of the manga nor seen any of the adapted anime episodes of this so, the one thing I can’t do here is tell you how this is as an actual adaptation of the source material.

I can tell you some other stuff though including the fact that I was kinda conflicted about going to see this one because... well I’m not the biggest fan of James Cameron, although I quite liked his first film in The Terminator series, ALIENS and The Abyss. When you get to stuff like Avatar though... count me out. Rodriguez, however, is a director I’ve always quite liked.... especially his Sin City films, his Planet Terror contribution to the Grindhouse movie (especially the extended, stand alone version) and his Machete movies. However, when I saw the trailer, it didn’t really look like a Rodriguez movie... but it did look spectacular. I also found the enlarged eyes of the main Alita character kinda interesting.

The film tells the story of Alita, played by Rosa Salazar as a full CGI version (so I guess she does the voice and possibly motion capture), who is a cyborg found by Dr. Dyson (played by Christoph Waltz) on a garbage heap dumped from the last surviving sky city and left unwanted in Iron City (which is presumably on Earth). She has a human brain inside her head and when the doctor revives her, no memory of her former life although, as the movie throws her character into violent conflicts, she tends to have flashes of memory as to what she really was in her former life 300 years before.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot because, contrary to my worries that this film would be a special effects laden spectacular with no story... it does actually have a good tale to tell with the central mystery of the past held in Alita’s head and, frankly, a lot more heart than I was expecting from a film like this.

Yep... I really loved this movie and that kinda took me by surprise.

In addition to Salazar and Waltz... who are both utterly brilliant in their roles... we have Jennifer Connelly playing a sinister character and, also, Ed Skrein, who also plays a good villain (such as in Deadpool, reviewed by me here) but who also deserves to be given more heroic roles such as the surprisingly decent job he did jumping into Jason Statham’s shoes for The Transporter Refuelled (which I reviewed here). However, here he’s back to being a villain again and, as you would expect, he does a good job of it.

The set designs and art direction are first class and you can see how you would never have got to movies like this without a direct legacy back to the 1982 movie Blade Runner (reviewed here) and some of the other films influenced by it over the years such as The Fifth Element and Ghost In The Shell (reviewed here). But more than that, the title character has such charm and a kind of essential innocence to her character (in spite of some of the things she has obviously been trained to do in her former life) that you never lose sight of the story and it’s warm, beating human heart as we watch her eat chocolate for the first time, fall in love and learn how to play a violent roller skate sport which is obviously based on Rollerball and which takes up a lot of the screen time here in terms of the action sequences.

Now, I know there are some people out there who may find the story structure a bit disappointing. I think it was about half way through the movie when I realised there were going to be no main story resolutions here and you can kind of see where the potential sequels are going to pick up the ball. In fact, the director and producer (and writers, I guess) have been criticised with spending too long setting up the sequels but, frankly, I thought it was more a natural ebb and flow of the dramatic narrative and I think this is one of the few movies I’ve seen of recent years which manages to completely pull this off and still leave a certain amount of dramatic closure for the viewer.

Talking about narrative structure... there are a few scenes where things are implied rather than directly spelled out but that’s cool, I’m always down with not spoon feeding the audience too much on these things. I was also happy that the big eyes of Alita were not nearly as distracting as I thought they would be. You kind of get used to them really quickly and I found myself wondering, at one point, were they actually any bigger than a normal person’s eyes or was I imagining it? It really doesn’t take long for your brain to adapt.

So... shorter review I guess because I didn’t really have any grumbles with Alita - Battle Angel and was both thoroughly entertained and, surprisingly, quite moved by it in some places. Adding to the whole ambience of the movie was some nice action scoring by Junkie XL which really held things together and once more confirmed my suspicions that he’s one of the more promising composers working in film scoring these days. But there you have it... once again, sorry for the shorter review for this one but when you get a film as pitch perfect as Alita - Battle Angel then there’s not too much else to say until you’ve studied it on multiple viewings. Other than I’m hoping that this does really well at the box office so we can see the next installments sooner rather than later (or not at all, in the worst case scenario). My one bit of advice would be to make the journey to your local cinema to see this one because... yes it’s got heart and soul but, as you might suspect from the trailer, it also looks pretty darn spectacular. So don’t miss it in the venue it was designed for. After all, Alita bit of what you fancy does you good.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

The Notorious Betty Page



The Yeager Sanction

The Notorious Bettie Page

Directed by Mary Harron
USA 2005 Picturehouse Films
Blu Ray Zone B


I remember wanting to catch this movie at cinemas when it came out but, if memory serves, a combination of being ill and it not playing at my local meant I missed my opportunity. Luckily, I managed to pick up a DVD of this in Fopp records in one of those “if you spend over £X you get the opportunity to buy this for £Y” kinds of deals a year or two ago. And now, here I am finally getting around to watching the thing.

Bettie Page, of course, was the famous and certainly iconic model who, in the 1940s and 1950s was shooting saucy poses, nudes and also lots of fetish and bondage stuff (including short movies of similar material) for famous photographers such as Irving Klaw, his sister Paula Klaw and Bunny Yeager. She also appeared in a small number of feature length burlesque movies as a performer, along with the likes of Tempest Storm, Lili St. Cyr and Cherry Knight, in such movies as Striporama, Varietease and Teaserama. Curiously, those movies aren’t actually mentioned in this film, although the dance on the end credits could well be lifted from one of them... or it’s performed by Gretchen Mole, the actress playing The Notorious Bettie Page, copying one of them as, frankly, there are a few times in this movie when it’s very hard to tell them apart. Mole does that good a job with the role.

Now, it has to be said that the film, like most biopics, paints a slightly different version of events in some areas than real life. For instance, Jared Harris plays the creator of the famous Adventures Of Gwendoline bondage comic strip but, in real life, I believe the two never met. Now, Bettie Page was still alive and ‘rediscovered’ when this film came out (she died at the age of 85 back in 2008) and, contrary to reports at the time, she didn’t think the film necessarily portrayed things as they were precisely and didn’t quite click with it, although it’s noted she liked Gretchen Mole in the part. My understanding is the story of Bettie Page in real life, if you can filter out any tall tales, contains even more interesting and sometimes alarming material than is portrayed in this movie and so, it seems, I’ll need to try and pick up the equivalent of a decent biography at some point.

Now, I have to say that this must have been an intimidating part for Mole to play. I’m certainly not joking when I say Bettie Page is an iconic figure. I have a little bookmark with a painting of her at work which is ‘blu tacked’ to the inside of my doorframe and it’s clear that, even people who don’t know her, somehow recognise her and her famous haircut (the origin of which we see in this movie). I remember seeing the movie version of the comic book The Rocketeer back in 1991 and thinking how the character Jenny, played by Jennifer Connelly, seemed a fairly obvious, especially from the dialogue, homage to Bettie Page. When you look at the original comic book, which is very different due to the film not licensing half of the characters who are in the original (I think the most important absence in the movie, for me, is Doc Savage, who invented the rocket pack in the comic book... not Howard Hughes as the movie shows) the character is called Bettie and has a modelling career where she shoots risque material and is drawn to look exactly like Bettie Page so... yeah... an influential figure who, I suspect, was never fully or adequately paid for the cultural impact of her modelling work.

The film itself starts off in New York in 1955 where a porn store is raided and we go on to see David Strathairn playing  Estes Kefauver, a prosecutor in a public prosecution case against ‘The Klaws’ in a real ‘McArthy witch hunt looking' trial against pornographic material, which put me in mind of the same kinds of footage one sees of the hearings against the comic book industry in the 1950s. The film uses this point of time, with Bettie waiting in the lobby to be called to answer questions... and from there we dart backwards in time to different places to look at her back story and how she got from a girl growing up in 1936 and 1942, before going on to her modelling career.

And the film is pretty accomplished. In the 1942 sequence, director Harron takes us... and Betty... from early courtship to marriage, domestic abuse and divorce all in the space of a few minutes which doesn’t even feel like a regular montage sequence. That being said, the director really knows how to do that kind of sequence and there’s one beautiful section of film where we are taken through various covers which feature Gretchen as Bettie, moving and doing the photoshoot live in giant mock ups of the covers (or it’s possibly CGI’d). These moments actually reminded me of the scenes where Gene Kelly is talking about Leslie Caron and we see vignettes of her dancing in different moods in On The Town and, to be honest, of similar scenes in the late 1940s/1950s MGM musicals in particular, it has to be said. So, yeah, some really nice stuff here from this director. That being said, the film is mostly shot in a very crisp black and white but various sequences such as this wonderful cover montage or the photoshoots by Bunny Yeager in Miami, suddenly burst into colour (reminiscent of the colour films of the era) and bring a lovely sense of contrast and richness to the film as a whole.

When Bettie moves out of her abusive marriage she is picked up on the street one night on the promise of an evening of dancing and driven to a remote spot to be gang raped. I never realised she had this kind of trauma in her life but the early bleakness of the story is offset by some really happy times when we get to her modelling career. This incident compels her to leave for New York in 1949 where she gets into the modelling scene almost by accident. There are also some spots of actual footage, I suspect (or just incredibly well done, visually aged stock thrown in to confuse), from a similar period such as a the bus ride to New York which looks quite authentic at times... so I’m just assuming it is actually lifted from library stock.

And it’s a brilliant film which takes a look at the central character with, perhaps, just a little too much religious overtone if my reading of the reaction of the real Bettie Page is something I’m interpreting correctly.

Gretchen Mole is perfect in this, capturing the facial expressions, mannerisms and cute, exaggerated poses of the subject absolutely pitch perfectly. Now, it has to be said that I thought her nipples were just slightly different to the real life Bettie’s and I was somewhat torn for a few minutes in terms of the authenticity of the character but... I figured you can’t get everything right and, frankly, CGI nipples would not have been a good choice, methinks. Mole is joined by a whole load of brilliant actors to help highlight her central performance. I’ve already mentioned Strathairn and Harris but we also have on hand Lili Taylor as Paula Claw, Sarah Paulson (who played an important role recently in the M. Night Shyamalan film Glass, reviewed here) in an almost but not quite scene stealing turn as Bunny Yeager and a brilliant and nicely comical performance by Chris Bauer as Irving Klaw.

So, add up all these beautiful performances, some lovely black and white cinematography, a nice soundtrack including some good needle drop song choices by the likes of Julie London and an energy and pacing which makes for never a dull moment... and you have this fine film, The Notorious Bettie Page, which I would wholeheartedly recommend to any cinephiles I know of and especially those interested in a slice of American history which isn’t often touched upon that often in the movies (although the absolute masterpiece from a couple of years ago, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which I reviewed here, did a pretty good job of certain aspects of it too). This is definitely due another watch at some point and now I wish I’d have grabbed a Blu Ray copy of it instead of this DVD version. A truly gorgeous piece of movie making and I’m going to have to watch out for this director in the future, I believe.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Mighty One: My Life Inside The Nerve Centre



Rigellian Hot Shot

The Mighty One:
My Life Inside The Nerve Centre

by Steve MacManus
200AD Publications
ISBN: 978-1781084755


So... it turns out this is a really great book.

Regular readers may remember that the main comic I grew up on as a kid was the classic title which brought regular readers their weekly dose of thrill power, 2000AD. I finally ditched this title after, from the first issue, buying the first 1,500 or so installments due to what I thought was a steady decline in the publication which had been going on since the late 1980s. At least I still have all my back issues though.

The Mighty One - My Life Inside The Nerve Centre is an autobiographical ramble by writer Steve MacManus about his various jobs in the British comics scene. What seems to be his longest and, arguably, his most influential job is what the title of this bright and breezy account is referring to. Any kid worth his salt knew that The Nerve Centre was where their weekly issue of 2000AD took on life and The Mighty One refers, in a way, to MacManus himself. Actually, it refers to Tharg, the fictional alien who ran The Nerve Centre and, although MacManus wasn’t working on the comic right from the outset, for a large chunk of time he was working on the title and running the show and, yes, he did don the familiar (to us kids) Tharg The Mighty costume on occasion. Just as, if I remember correctly, comic artist Dave Gibbons, who provides the foreword to this tome, used to wear the costume of The Big E for one of 2000AD’s failed sister publications Tornado... a title which, like Starlord before it, got merged with 2000AD and swallowed by it... although, in the case of Starlord, a couple of the strips, notably RoBusters and Strontium Dog, did at least continue on with a life of their own in the pages of the elder sister. I don’t remember much about Tornado, to be honest... other than I stopped reading it after maybe the first issue.

But, of course, this mighty tome is not just about the glory days of 2000AD. It’s about the young MacManus going through various stages of his career starting on the popular (at the time) British comic Battle, where his first job was to make up the letters page for the first edition. Now, when I was a kid I always used to wonder why so many comics had a letter page in their first issue. After all, how could anyone have read it to make a comment before it was even out? I always used to assume that some lucky blighters had been sent free advanced copies of the comics and asked to give their opinion but my dad, always the cynic, said “Knickers! They make them up themselves.”* Well, the truth is revealed here as being something between the two. MacManus and others would make up letters for various logic defying first issues’ letter pages, which completely goes against the grain and makes the 9 year old in me fairly angry but, at least they weren’t writing them for every issue, as my dad insisted they did. After the first issue, the mail bag for a title would begin to fill and so it was only the first week where mailbag fantasies were concocted. Still, it’s nice to be able to finally get to the bottom of that mystery, I can tell you.

The writer goes on to give various fascinating insights about the rewriting and editing of scripts for these comics and how long it would all take. He also mentions the new work ethos inherited from the Scottish teams poached and brought down to old London town to help launch Battle. It would be true to say that the title was very successful and he does mention the creation of rival comic Action, which MacManus also contributed the odd story to. Now, he doesn’t go into the ins and outs of just why Action was publicly denounced and talked about in Parliament and, ultimately, banned before being sanitised and then just fizzling out, but it is at least mentioned and there are some fond recollections to be had when talking about certain characters... the giant shark Hookjaw comes to mind. I remember first reading an issue when I was in hospital, recovering from having been hit by two cars that collided with each other before mounting the pavement and nearly killing me. It wasn’t a comic I read a lot of though and, given the state I was in both mentally and physically at the time, that’s perhaps not too surprising. He also reveals how he was the guy photographed for Action doing crazy stunts under the name of Mr. Action on a weekly basis... and there’s some entertaining stories to be had there too.

Then he talks about his time on the creator of Action’s next... and somewhat very secret project, 2000AD... first as a similar job to what he’d climbed to on Battle and then, ultimately, inheriting the chief editor position by default. And it’s absolutely great to read that the gentleman acknowledges the problem with the Biotronic Stickers given away in Issue 2. I remember these things vividly, not because they were obviously inspired by the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man and showed cut outs of machinery to give the illusion that you were some kind of cybernetic being with mechanical workings showing in handy portals on your body but, like a lot of kids, because of the near traumatising experience of getting the damn things off. MacManus admits the glue used on this classic gift was a little overpowering and that even when taking a bath with them on, many kids could still not get the enhanced cosmetics off. Oh yeah, I remember the pain involved on that fateful Saturday I decided to wear my biotronic gift... a pain now slightly offset by MacManus’ accounts of the number of complaining phone calls the offices received from across the land from angry parents with many kids in similar situations. Those were the days, eh?

And, frankly, this whole book is a joy to read, not because it’s always entirely factually accurate, it isn’t... but because it gives a real insight in the art of running a top selling weekly comic and it does so in a thoroughly entertaining manner. I loved that even MacManus identified strips like Rick Random and Angel as being absolutely terrible (and in the case of Rick Random, thrust on them by the publishers). I similarly love his echoing of my thoughts (aka my angry rant to people and film studios who misuse the term) when he said Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were marketed to an uneducated British public as graphic novels. He knows they aren’t graphic novels, they’re comic book reprints so... yeah, wish the film studios purporting their comic book movies are based on graphic novels, to make them sound more legitimate in their eyes, would learn the difference.

As I said before, there are inaccuracies. For example, he says that Ridley Scott’s movie ALIEN was rated 15 by the British Board of Film Censors... it wasn’t. That rating wasn’t even created when ALIEN was released... it was an X certificate, pure and simple. Similarly, citing an event that happened to him reminding him at the time of a scene in The Shawshank Redemption is, I think, more convenient in terms of an entertaining sentence rather than reflecting accuracy... since the film wasn’t released for another seven years after the incident referred to happened. Unless, of course, he was referring to the original novella but then... it doesn’t have that title and it wasn’t known at the time that Stephen King wrote it (it was originally released under a pen name).

But, honestly, you can forgive the odd inaccuracy or two when you are being entertained by a writer who comes up with golden lines like... “I fell asleep during 2001: A Space Odyssey and awoke with a Hal of a hangover.” And his embarrassing story about making a point in a powerful meeting hinging on the lyrics of Enya’s Orinoco Flow as “Save a whale, save a whale, save a whale” is priceless. Especially when he realises later that he’d misheard the lyrics and they were “Sail away, sail away, sail away...”.

This is easily one of the most interesting and easy to read biographical sketches I’ve read and, when he includes stories about the creation and reception of such classics as the Judge Dredd tale The Cursed Earth, The Ballad Of Halo Jones (a 2000AD cover from The Ballad Of Halo Jones Book Three is included on the front of this tome), Strontium Dog, Robohunter, Ace Trucking, Rogue Trooper, The ABC Warriors, Nemesis The Warlock and also throws in stories about his involvement with the creation of Crisis and Revolver, you have a heck of a nice little book brimming over with what, in the old days, The Mighty Tharg would call thrill power. If you have any interest or remembrance of some of the comics mentioned her then you’ll definitely have a good time reading The Mighty One - My Life Inside The Nerve Centre. A definite recommendation from me and just a genuinely fun package. Miss this at your peril (and be ready to receive a Rigellian Hot Shot for your trouble).

*Please note, my dad was using this expression as an expletive long before Rojaws in Robusters took it as his catchphrase.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Daisies



Pushing Up

Daisies
Czechoslovakia 1966
Directed by Vera Chytilová
Second Run Blu Ray Zone B

Daisies is another film which I’d not heard of before seeing it drifting by with high praise on my Twitter feed, advertising the new Blu Ray transfer released over here in the UK by Second Run. Of course, the terms Czechoslovakia and surrealism in such close juxtaposition put me in mind of those abstract, five minute Czechoslovakia cartoon fillers that used to get shown on BBC television in the 1960s and 1970s and, to be fair, there is a certain amount of just that kind of animated experimentation within this movie. The fact that it had been banned on release in it’s home country for, and I quote, ‘depicting the wanton’ and the director forbidden to work again for six years only added fuel to the fire of me wanting to see this excessive amount of ‘wanton’ and I was grateful, therefore, to receive a copy of this on the occasion of my birthday this year.

The film proceeds with an almost sinister opening credits sequence depicting some kind of mechanical contrivance of three big cogs which are intercut to genuine war footage. To describe the plot of the film is, in some ways, redundant due to the fact that it doesn’t really have one but once the credits are done with the audience is treated to a shot of the two main protagonists, both called Marie and played by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, sitting side by side in crisp, black and white photography. Perhaps my first few minutes of the film as I experienced them in synopsis can give you a flavour of what sitting down to watch Daisies is like...

As the two girls decide between them that the world has gone bad and, therefore, they can be bad too, their movements are deliberately wooden and jerky, accompanied by the sound of creaking wood on the soundtrack. Then, when one of the Marias slaps the other, she is propelled by the magic of editing out of that scene to wake up in a field of daisies as the screen explodes into full colour (a tactic redeployed again later by the director as she cuts on one of the girls tugging the others leg and they both end up in a different sequence at the end of the tug). Both girls jump up and down and do some kind of joyful and somewhat hypnotic bunny dance to the upbeat soundtrack.

And there you have the basic attitude of the film. It’s very much, in my opinion, embracing the sixties spirit of the young rebelling against the older generation and their various wars... and had somewhat prophetic timing, in a way, given the tensions of the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968 (some of the events of which were depicted in the much praised, an deservedly so, film of Milan Kundera’s book The Unbearable Lightness Of Being).

Now, it’s tempting to throw interpretation on some of the scenes here, which consist of the two Maries going around exploiting older men for big meals, abandoning them and then contemplating this or that idea in surrealistic and often non-sequitur sequences which, in general, depict a joyfully chaotic nature reminiscent of something you would have seen depicted in a Marx Brothers movie 30 years before. Indeed, I would be very much surprised if the scene where one Marie is cutting up food with a pair of scissors was not directly influenced by certain Harpo Marx routines. That being said, interpretations which you bring yourself to a film can be especially valid, I think, when the structure is rendered somewhat deliberately elliptical in intent. So, my take on the opening would be the act of rebellion to expected society norms depicted as puppets freeing themselves from their wooden appearance and bursting forth into the real world.

And there’s a lot going on visually with this movie, it has to be said. There are a lot of colour changes, sometimes even within the same shot. I’d say about two fifths of the film was shot in full colour, two fifths in black and white and the remaining fifth set in a variety of colour tinted black and white frames which change seemingly randomly. So you have a green tinted screen which cuts away and then back and then suddenly everything is tinted yellow for no apparent reason. This also, however, occasionally helps out with the way the visual syntax is used in certain scenes.... for instance, a dinner montage where the tints are continually changing on a cut every few seconds helps the director convey a sense of passing time and thus serves a very useful purpose. Other times, those stock treatments may even change on the rhythm of a ticking clock. In one shot of one Marie drinking wine and then crossing her eyes, the colour changes smoothly to another tint as she does so with no cut.

Similarly, another dinner sequence (the girls seem to be obsessed with food for pretty much the whole course of the film) has a moment where a shot zooms out in stages, triggered by words spoken from one of the characters. And the film is riddled with this kind of experimental approach to the visual boundaries throughout, in an almost constant bombardment on the audiences, hijacking the pre-conditioned way of decoding images placed in a sequence before them. For instance, another scene where the girls go scissor crazy and cut off each other limbs and head (all still quite active body parts such as a floating head which looks around and sticks out her tongue) lead into the cinematic frame itself being cut into constantly moving tiny pieces. Of course, in the very next sequence, both girls are back to normal and off on their next escapade.

Some of it is a challenge visually but in terms of the way the mind receives the information... following the main protagonists who are really beautifully played by Cerhová and Karbanová, with the charming Barbara Windsor-esque giggle of one of the characters softening the severity of some of their blase and callous attitudes to every other living creature they come in contact with (the youth of today, eh?)... is all very positive and makes for a fun watch. It’s also very difficult to decode sometimes but then, that’s what makes it so fun... Is the journey in the industrial dumb waiter a metaphorical ascent to heaven as the girls are delivered to a banquet where more chaos ensues or should we just take it at face value? Indeed, should we even take the girls at face value when they are bored and annoyed by the lack of attention they are receiving? When one of the Marias takes the other back to the aftermath of an earlier scene to prove a point she says to the other Maria... ‘There you are! We do exist.” Frankly, I’m not so sure but I was having too much fun by this point to care whether the central protagonists were real characters or only shadows of the puppet people they at first appeared to be.

The use of music is quite good in some places and the needle drop stuff is very well chosen throughout... especially the placement of Siegfried's Funeral March from Gotterdämmerung by Richard Wagner, a piece of music I recognised from its inclusion in Excalibur (reviewed by me here)... used here to create a sinister overtone to upcoming events where it’s not necessarily visually loaded as projecting that particular ambience. I also loved the musical accompaniment to a couple of dancers in my favourite scene where they are upstaged by the increasingly drunken girls whose behaviour at this point leaves a lot to be desired.

And that’s my take on Daisies... a film I’d not heard of until a few months ago but definitely one I’d recommend to fans of movies depicting a celebration of the attitudes of the emerging youth of the period. There’s rarely a dull moment and the pace of the piece is such that it rockets... well, if not forward then certainly sideways... at a furious pace. Definitely one to watch if you are a lover of cinema and you like films like, say, Head starring The Monkees or, indeed, Duck Soup. A definite treat and much thanks to Second Run for releasing this gem.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Bond By Design



The Art Of Bondage

Bond By Design -
The Art Of The James Bond Films

Dorling Kindersley
ISBN: 978-0241185995


Bond By Design - The Art Of The James Bond Films is a tome I wanted primarily because I knew it had some of the storyboards from the movies in it, including the beautifully painted acrylic and watercolour storyboards used for the production of From Russia With Love. Indeed, it turns out there are a lot more panels of the speedboat chase from that film included than I actually remembered seeing in real life in the various exhibitions they have turned up in over the years so, if you are into those kinds of things, this is an excellent book. Well, it’s an excellent book all round, to be honest.

When I was given this as a Christmas present I was surprised by the actual large size of it and, it has to be said, it looks really beautiful as a thick, coffee table hardback in a handsome slipcase which details some of those aforementioned speedboat chase storyboards on the front and a Ken Adam set sketch for the volcano lair in You Only Live Twice on the back. When you pull the hardback loose, there’s a lovely contrast with the sleek white covers boasting two more Ken Adam felt tip sketches in all their glory.

The other surprising thing, for me, was finding that the book is published by Dorling Kindersley. Now I’ve never had a bad word to say about DK (as they are now apparently, officially branded?) and they’ve always produced quality books which show off illustrations to their best. However, I’ve always kind of associated them with being publishers of purely children’s books so, the fact that they were involved with this project is going to make me rethink their contribution to the adult marketplace, methinks. But, back to the book...

The volume has no general introductory text, which threw me quite a bit and made me feel like I was going in naked. Instead it jumps straight in at Dr. No with a chapter for each of the productions up to SPECTRE (using the typography associated with the relevant poster design as the chapter title). Each chapter starts as a double page spread and on one of these pages you get a little spiel about the film and the designers working on it, before getting on with the rest of the section with various, almost randomly chosen pieces (it seemed to me) ranging anywhere from set designs (many of the famous Ken Adam ones are covered here, naturally), logo designs, prop designs, costume designs, vehicle designs and, yes, even a smattering of storyboards... all of which have small captions telling you as much information as the publishers could glean.

Now, I don’t want to say anything too negative because, for sure, it’s a lovely book and absolutely essential for someone like me to have perched on a bookshelf but, one of the things I did feel was missing from this was photographs of the finished products. It’s all very well showing us the designs of how a set was supposed to look or how, say, the rocket pack from Thunderball was supposed to look both in that movie and in its reappearance in Die Another Day (a Bond film I’ve tried to blot out of my memory, along with the Daniel Craig movies) but it would be really nice to have seen a reminder of how those designs and sketches finished up in the final film. I don’t think there’s actually a single photograph from any of the Bond movies actually in this book, to be honest. However, most Bond fans will know the movies well enough, I’m sure, that they won’t really need that aide-mémoire to give them the required perspective.

My other complaint might be that this book only covers the EON Productions Bond films... so you won’t find the previous two versions of Casino Royale in here other than the third version with Daniel Craig in it. Neither will you find films like the Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again (although that one is at least mentioned in relation to Octopussy) or the second time George Lazenby took on the role of 007 in The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. So... yeah... The Art Of The James Bond Films is a bit of a misleading subtitle, it has to be said.

However, as I said, there are some lovely pages in this book. Alas, there weren’t too many pages devoted to two of my favourite Bond movies... On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Living Daylights but what there is in the book is mostly gold. So you can see a storyboard of Bond in ‘Little Nellie’, his autogyro from You Only Live Twice and then, a while later, be perusing the diagrams made of ‘wet nellie’, his submarine converting Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me. There are also some interesting items here in that you can work out just who had and who hadn’t been cast in some of the films by the time the storyboards were made. It’s sometimes very obvious if an actor or actress was a late arrival or not.

Of the 300+ pages that make up this, truly, excellent book, I’d say I was familiar with at least two thirds of the stuff in here from various exhibitions I’ve been to see in London over the last three decades or more. Similarly, there’s design work I’ve seen at various exhibits and displays which are somewhat absent from this tome but, limiting themselves to just over 300 pages couldn’t have been an easy editorial job, I would guess.

So that’s a short review for a book that doesn’t’ contain a lot of text but which is definitely a feast for the eyes. If you’re into James Bond and you like any of the main production elements such as set design or costumes then you’re in for a treat if you acquire this book. Personally, I could have done without the Craig films because the digital world has taken over from the more interesting and expressive (it seems to me) hand drawn world and... hyper-real digital computer mock ups of what things should look like just don’t seem as interesting to me. That being said, Bond By Design is a nicely designed and presented gem of a book for any Bond film afficionado and you should snap it up instantly while there are still a few new copies left on Amazon. Really pleased with this one.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Destroyer



Destroyer Rides Again

Destroyer
2018 USA
Directed by Karyn Kusama
UK cinema release print.


Wow... this is a really great movie.

And, I’m happy to say... it took me unawares.

So Destroyer is a tale about a cop who was working with the FBI, 16 years prior to one of the main story timelines in the film, when the job went south for reasons I won’t reveal here. The cop’s name is Erin Belle and she’s played here by Nicole Kidman in what is a pretty amazing performance. She’s joined here by Toby Kebbell playing the lead villain Silas and Sebastian Stan playing Chris, Belle’s former partner in the back story.

The film is directed by Karyn Kusama, who directed both Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body (reviewed here) and it’s a real gem of a picture. I’m going to have to tread very carefully here to avoid spoilers.

Kidman plays two sides of Erin Belle, one as the bright, young thing who was involved in the original events and one as the current, burnt out cop version of her character who has been sent some evidence that the villain who wrecked things for her 16 years ago is back and up to his old tricks. So we see her piecing together the evidence and information she needs to find this villain while, at the same time, trying to juggle the stress of managing her fraught, alienated relationship with her 16 year old daughter. The film has twists and turns and, I have to say, I was not expecting most of them at all which, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know is a pretty rare occurrence. I almost always see the twists coming.

The film has a nice look to it and there are some great shot set ups with some very rich colour combinations, some of which almost reminded me of old Edward Hopper paintings. The director also uses a less than usual visual syntax throughout the film, especially with her use of establishing shots to give it an edgy, off kilter feel. Or should I say lack of use of establishing shots. That is to say... even her regular establishing shots tend to pull you into a specific location. One of the things I caught her doing was using a high shot of a building as an establishing shot, for example, before tracking down and directly into the eye level of Nicole Kidman sitting in her car, shifting the focus as she highlighted the character and placed her into the frame but also filtering out the peripheral information which is now jettisoned. She then used a sharp cut to take us to a completely different scene in another location.

Most of the time, though, I have to say I was unaware of any strong establishing shots to frame the action for the audience at all and this way of following the character in a relatively close environment a lot of the time makes things somehow more intense and immediate while not giving the collective audience the little breaks and cut aways it’s used to. Which I found both fascinating and sometimes a little disorienting and I am assuming that disorientation was deliberate because...

Okay... this hopefully doesn’t amount to a spoiler but I said it gets twisty and turny and there’s a specific, big story point that’s not revealed until right towards the end of the picture. And the thing is, normally I would have seen this coming right away but, because the structure of the film involves constant flashbacks to linearly tell the back story of the main character, the real structure of the film is hidden from view... hidden in plain sight, in fact... from the audience and I suspect the constant use of close ups and so forth to begin various scenes and lead you to the story in a visually convoluted (or at least less than usual) way helps greatly with the directors very subtle and, timed just right, sleight of hand when she’s not being completely honest with certain elements of the way the story unfolds. And that’s all I’m going to say about this one, because I really don’t want to spoil it for first time viewers... other than to say that the cleverness of the story structure works hand in hand with the mise en scene and almost relies on an aspect of Nicole Kidman’s performance in a specific scene near the start of the film. Well, she totally sold it to me because it’s not something the audience has been primed to watch out for yet and Kidman plays a specific scene just right, so that there’s not even a hint that what we are watching is not always necessarily to be trusted, so to speak.

The other great thing about this movie is the incredible score. It’s absolutely stunning and shame on the powers that be for only giving this an electronic download release instead of the quality CD release this music so richly deserves... and, frankly, since this picture was released into cinemas in America towards the end of last year, I’m practically frothing at the mouth right now that this score wasn’t given an oscar nomination. It’s so striking and, almost subliminally at times, sets the viewer on edge and enhances the drama and, very much I think, the mindset of the film’s central protagonist at any given time. I didn’t know who I was listening to when I watched this but by the final quarter of the movie I had pretty much made my mind up that this thing must have been composed by Mica Levi... the score is that amazing and it seemed a perfect fit for her style. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stayed through some of the end credits to discover the music was composed by Theodore Shapiro (who did quite a good score for the Ghostbusters reboot a few years back). Shame on the Academy for not recognising the sheer power and resonance of this score and shame on the company for not putting out a CD release.

So, what more to say on this one? Brilliant performances all round, fantastic direction, genius editing, an absolute classic and powerful score and a central protagonist, perfectly played by Kidman, who’s mindset throughout the film is wildly unpredictable and who is bound to catch the audience off guard at various points in the unfolding of her story. If you are into thrillers or police procedural movies then, seriously, Destroyer is definitely the film to see this year. Pitch perfect on all levels and, though I wouldn’t normally do repeat viewings, I might have to rewatch this again when it comes out on Blu Ray so I can nitpick my way through the story structure and figure out just how the director managed to fool me on this one. Such a cool film and one which will, I’m sure, feature in many critical essays and articles in the coming decades. A truly great piece of cinema that reminds us just how much this medium is a true form of artistic expression. Go and see this masterpiece soonest.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Escape Room



To Room, It May Concern

Escape Room
2019 USA Directed by Adam Robitel
UK cinema release print.


Warning: A very minor spoiler in this.

Okay, yeah. This is not a bad effort on behalf of the cast and crew to create... well, it’s not actually a horror film but, yeah... a pretty good thriller which takes the old clichéd puzzle solving element of certain serial killer movies and presents it in a way that’s both effective and, it has to be said, quite intense in places.

After a bookend prologue and a preliminary series of sequences, which sets up three of the main protagonists, we have them and a few others invited to play an Escape Room style game with a hefty cash reward if your team makes it out of there alive. These games have, of course, become very popular over the last few years and I've also played two of them in London with some of my friends. I think that this whole idea of a team of contestants trying to solve clues to find their way out of a series of locked rooms all started as an entertaining thing to watch back in the early 1980s with the BBC TV show The Adventure Game (which I was fortunate enough to be able to review in its latest incarnation as a DVD box set here). Various similar things followed in its footsteps and it would be fair to say the modern thriller films like the Saw series, where victims try and escape from various death traps, are a similar cinematic trend.

Escape Room takes the game concept and does exactly this; turns every puzzle room in the suite into a death trap and... there are a couple of slight problems, to my mind, with the movie but they don’t detract from it being an intense and thoroughly entertaining ride of a film, it as to be said. And it cracks along at a fair pace too, with some scenes of almost unbearable suspense.

Surprisingly, for the subject matter, you don’t really see any major gory violence in the film at all and, thankfully, this really doesn’t hamper the movie in any way. Indeed, the director manages to make the whole ‘edge of your seat’ atmosphere of the film fairly bloodless while still keeping you worried about certain characters while knowing, all the while, the situation that one of those characters is going to find themselves in when the film eventually catches up to the opening sequences. It’s a grim proposition, it has to be said, although I wasn’t fooled by certain aspects of that set up and I kinda knew that one of the supposedly dead characters would be returning at some point to act like the cavalry or, at the very least... survive.

However, the film did fool me in that I was pretty sure I knew what the twist ending was going to be but, when we get to that kind of point in the movie, it turned out there was no reveal at all. Everything in the film that’s presented from the start is absolutely all the given facts. So I’m kinda happy about that as I really didn’t need to see a certain solution to the events that take place over the course of the story turn out to be something which has been done to death in recent years on television.

I said there were a couple of weaknesses to the movie and one of those was the fact that we see a set up to three of the main characters. However, when everyone converges on the Escape Room of the title there are a few more characters added into the mix and, while the director does keep giving us little background flashbacks for each character’s back story... it’s pretty obvious that the last three left at one point will be the same three we were ‘briefed’ on by the director at the start of the story. So that was a bit of a telegraphed sequence of moments which I think could have probably been avoidable if the film makers had thought about it.

The other thing I was not so hot on was the last ten minutes of the movie. Once whoever is getting out is out, the director spends an awful long time setting up a very contrived feeling sequence to give the audience a possibility of a sequel, should the time come and this film has sufficient box office clout. Not only that but the last two minutes even shows us... and this is crazy... how the next movie, or at least the next story beats, would play out and so, by this point, I don’t even need to watch the sequel because I already know the plot set up.

That being said though, it didn’t really detract from the sheer intensity of the piece and Escape Room has a lot to recommend it to fans of films like Cube, even with the lack of violence in it. You have some nice sets with some nice puzzles, a whole load of good actors including those main three played by Taylor Russell, Logan Miller and Jay Ellis... not to mention Tyler Labine, who played Dale in Tucker And Dale Versus Evil (which I reviewed here). Added to this we have an interesting score by Brian Tyler and John Carey which... well, there’s a heck of a lot going on in it and I’d need to listen to it divorced from the images to be able to judge it best but it certainly lifts the film a lot. Luckily, Sony Classical have released a CD of it although, sadly, Amazon says it will take two months to ship here for some reason.

However, add this fantastic and orchestrationally dense score to the mix of interesting actors and some quite nicely executed scenarios and, despite those one or two problems I mentioned earlier, you have a pretty good movie in Escape Room. When I went to a Cineworld premiere they had us all walk down a red carpet to receive a small sample of chocolate cake for some reason. I don’t know why they did that because it seemed to have nothing to do with the film and it wasn’t made clear to us just why we should be receiving such a freely given confection but, there you have it. One might think, if one was as suspicious as me, that it was meant to distract one from the quality of the film but, if that was the case, they needn’t have bothered. Escape Room is a solid thriller and I’d certainly recommend this one to people who are fans of piled on suspense in the movies. Just don’t expect a, literal, blood bath. Like I said, it’s not a horror movie... it’s a thriller.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Quatermass And The Pit (TV Serial Version)



Hob’s Your Uncle

Quatermass And The Pit
UK 1958/59
Directed by Rudolph Cartier
BBC Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: Spoilers here if you really don’t know the story by now.

Note: If you’re looking for my review of the Hammer Films remake of Quatermass And The Pit, it’s right here... http://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2012/02/quatermass-and-pit.html

Well, what can you say about Quatermass And The Pit that hasn’t been said already? Not much I suspect but I can at least give you my impression of my recent rewatch of the original TV serial, as it’s just been ‘restored’ on Blu Ray by the BBC. Although, to be honest, since it was recorded off a screen televising the live performance, there’s not an awful lot that could have been done to clean up the visual quality, I suspect. It’s nice to revisit it here though.

Quatermass And The Pit is the third of four Quatermass TV serials written by Nigel Kneale and the last of the three performed as a live broadcast by the BBC (the fourth TV serial didn’t surface until 20 years later on rival TV station ITV). Now I never saw the serials as a kid but always loved the Hammer remake movies, especially the first and third ones. I didn’t catch up to the original serials until the VHS and DVD days. Only the first two live broadcast episodes of the original version of The Quatermass Experiment still exist but both Quatermass II and Quatermass And The Pit have survived and this Blu Ray is a welcome addition to any science fiction film and TV watcher’s home... although I would have preferred the BBC would have ‘cut to the chase’ and Blu Rayed up their former Quatermaas Collection DVD box set, rather than release this as a stand alone and then, presumably, expecting us to double dip on it a few years down the line.

This is going to be a fairly short review because I’ve probably covered most of the story beats in my previous review of the movie remake (right here) but I will say that I can never really make up my mind if I prefer the original serialised version of Quatermass And The Pit or the Hammer adaptation of it. I think it’s a case of... I like whichever one I’m watching at the time but of all the Quatermass serials which made the transition into the movies, this one has the least changes to the story, I think. The first two Quatermass serials had great chunks of story shorn from them in their movie transitions but for this one, the condensation from the three hours of the serial to the one hour and thirty seven minute movie is quite an achievement and you don’t really miss any important story beats in the latter.

So I think the most useful thing do here is highlight the differences between the two and then, if you want more extended input as to the flavour of the story, visit my review of the Hammer adaptation of this.

Professor Quatermass is played by Andre Morel in this ‘incarnation’ of the main character. He plays him in the most authorative way I’ve seen and, for my money, is probably the best of the many actors to play the role over the years. He was no stranger to Hammer films, of course, and was later asked to come back and reprise the role for their movie version but I believe he didn’t really feel like repeating himself. The movie Quatermass for this one was played by Andrew Keir, who was writer Nigel Kneale’s personal favourite of the Quatermass actors if my memory circuits are firing on all cylinders (Keir was the only actor to ever play Quatermass twice, in the film version of this plus in Kneale’s radio show The Quatermass Memoirs). Brilliant as Kier is in the role, he still seems a little too passive for my liking whereas Morel immediately commands a sort of gravitas in the role and makes it his own.

He is ably supported by some truly great thespians with Dr. Rowney played in this version by Cec Linder (who James Bond fans may remember from his turn as Felix Leiter in Goldfinger), Anthony Bushell playing a somehow even more terrifyingly stupid version of Colonel Breen than the great Julian Glover managed in the movie version and Christine Finn, the voice of Tin Tin in Thunderbirds, as Barbara Judd. Although he was a Hammer regular, we also have Michael Ripper playing the Sergeant in this (he had appeared as a different character in the movie version of Quatermass II). You’ve also got John Stratton as Captain Potter and Richard Shaw as the all important drill operator Sladden. Now, I love the movie version of this and think the actors in it are exemplary but, I have to say, the cast in this original version are even more brilliant and you couldn’t want for a better bunch. I think the only actor who was actually in both the serial and the film was Noel Howlett, who plays the vicar in this and the Abbey librarian in the movie.

Like I said, the action and story are all pretty much the same between the two versions, with the serial obviously taking more time to grip onto the audience (the events in the movie version do seem unnaturally accelerated if you watch this one in close proximity before it, to be sure). However, they both have things which they do better than each other. The special effects on the serial for the great martian purge, plucked from the mind of Barbara Judd as she wears a headpiece which turns her hallucination race memories into something which can be recorded on a primitive video tape (or film, by the looks of it), are much more interesting and credible than the movie version. That’s because a) you can see various martian insects being singled out and killed and b) because the Hammer version of this scene contains truly atrocious special effects work, to be sure.

That being said the Hammer version of the story is much more visual in other ways. For instance, instead of Rowney sacrificing himself by earthing the, mostly unseen on camera, martian manifestation which has emerged from the disintegrated hull of the five million year old space capsule... by running into it and throwing the iron conductor to earth it before being obliterated... the movie version has him riding the top of a crane into it, which is much more interesting to look at. Similarly, the manifestation of the martian with all the colour bleached out of it and almost over-illuminated in the movie suggests exactly why primitive man saw it as Hob, or the Devil in that it’s much more of a horned demon looking thing (and one of the few horror films to give this 6 or 7 year old a complete lack of a good night’s sleep the first time I saw it). So in that way the movie version definitely wins out over this one.

Another big difference is that the movie version has diggers adding an extension to a tube tunnel at Hobb’s Lane first coming across the archeological finds and, eventually the space capsule, as part of the tube works. In this original version it’s already an archeological dig from a find on a building site at Hobb’s Lane... so it really is a big pit that this thing is mostly set around here... I guess Quatermass And The Tube Extension didn’t have the desired ring to it for the movie version.

Another major difference is the ending. The Hammer one stops on a characteristically bleak shot (typical for that period of Hammer film) of Quatermass and Barbara trying to get their heads together after Rowney’s sacrifice. Here, the sequence is followed by a, somewhat clunky, little press conference held by Quatermass to warn humanity that there are probably many more of these capsules spread around the Earth and we should be on the look out for them. It’s kind of the Quatermass version of the “Watch The Skies” monologue at the end of The Thing From Another World and, it gives things a less than exciting or haunting conclusion than the Hammer movie, it has to be said.

However, although it probably looks fairly dated to the youth of today, the TV serial has a lot to offer and the leisurely pacing in which it unfolds all the various incidents and drip feeds it to the audience is very well done. Yes, there are the occasional small mistakes which were part and parcel of live broadcast television, such as a camera operator moving to the other side of the room before his cue, panning back to the original speaker as he’s finishing his line and then having to quickly pan back to where he was going on the first place. This is all part of the fun though and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Some of this third serial, especially the outside locations, was pre-filmed to be slotted in between scenes, such was the ambition of Kneale’s script. Also, the music is quite effective and some of those electronic effects and scoring sections in the original serial mark this out as being the first sci-fi TV show to use electronic music (apparently, I need to check that out and see if that claim is correct). Whatever the case, it’s certainly damned atmospheric and is well used by the serial.

And that’s that for this one. This, like most of the Quatermass serials, was a ground breaking and important event show of its day (you wouldn’t get shows like Doctor Who without the presence of Quatermass changing what was acceptable on television) and the central premise that our world was invaded by martians millions of years ago and the majority of our species is actually descended from genetic experiments created by the martians was pretty much a first at the time. The martians are already here and they’re us... was quite a bit of a scary proposition. Like both the central character and writer Nigel Kneale, Quatermass And The Pit was hugely influential and the legacy has never stopped being plundered... I can’t quite work out why it’s not been remade again for modern audiences. If you’re a fan of science fiction and you’ve never seen the Quatermass serials then... you really should add these to your list. Quatermass And The Pit, no matter which version you watch it in, is sheer genius and an important part of British science fiction. I’m glad the BBC have finally put this out on Blu Ray and, hopefully, the surviving episodes of the first serial and the full second serial won’t be too far behind this one, fingers crossed. Truly stunning.